Are children safe on the Internet? – how to protect a child in a mobile application?
The multitude of digitization and related products is truly overwhelming. Like the pace of life of today’s parents, who, preoccupied with their own affairs, may not pay attention to what apps their children are using.
Those who are peering into the safety of their kids may not be aware of the appearance of the threats themselves or how to respond to their potential. In response, the Dutynet team.pl created a report “Mobile applications – are our children safe”
What risks are the youngest users of mobile applications exposed to?
Children and young people using mobile apps can be exposed to dangerous people. They are also at risk of being leaked and made public, which may not necessarily be true material that portrays the child in an inappropriate light. In general, we have to be careful about leaking any information, as it can easily be made public or used for various purposes.
Mobile apps themselves can carry negative mental health consequences for the youngest recipients. They can perpetuate habits and beliefs harmful to the psyche on a behavioural or existential-systemic background, rooting complexes, pathological behaviours or perpetuating compulsive behaviours.
Apps can also lead to fraud or expose their users to cybercrime threats.
What is important, not only the youngest, but all users of network solutions are exposed to all these aspects, especially those who are not aware of threats and potential consequences associated with them.
Experts decided to use data from the platform Google Play, through which they determined which applications are most frequently downloaded by the youngest age groups. This resulted in a ranking of the most popular mobile applications and games, as well as a list of those aspiring to this title. The researchers also drew on their research experience in selecting products for the study. The choice of apps for the study was dictated by the popularity of the apps among children and young people, not just their age designation or intended use. For games, as a designation of appropriate categories of age groups of recipients were used those that are widely recognized throughout the European Union known as PEGI – 3, 7, 12, 16 and 18.
Method of testing
In order to maintain the logical consistency necessary for the construction of the respective report conclusions, the researchers decided to draw up a flowchart.
- First, the type of system design was determined. This allowed for the identification and description of particular functionalities, which the user has access to from their panel. This step also allowed us to determine the metadata of the application.
- Second, xml maps were analyzed, which for Android applications are files in the format of AndroidManifest.xml, and the source code of the app was examined to see to what extent it uses the access permissions granted on the device and whether they are legitimate. This step allows you to determine whether the access request is standard or dangerous.
- Third, checking the control of settings and privacy that the application provides, for scenarios of use by minors. The researchers had in mind whether the software asks users about their age, how it reacts to this, whether it allows to limit some functions and whether the model of the application changes in some way. Researchers also checked if it is possible to control the collected data – to delete it or edit it.
In what areas might apps pose a danger?
According to analysts from dysurnet.pl problem with an application may occur even before it is installed. Namely, from the app store, the app may be labelled inappropriately. In terms of PEGI labelling, the majority of games had no problem with this. They only appeared when trying to rank non-game apps. Inadequate presentation of applications in the store it can also be about false descriptions and poorly chosen visual communication.
Another issue that the product researchers paid attention to was contact with the person or company responsible for the product. If contact with the developer was hampered implicitly means that the app publishers are not interested in the safety or comfort of their customers.
The report also found a place to emphasize harmful content inside the service, what is generated by the users themselves. We are talking about inappropriate vocabulary, use of vulgar nicknames, promotion of violence, drugs, gambling or eroticism, but also less obvious and more subtle – filters on photos. The latter are thought to have a slow effect on negative perceptions of one’s body and related personality disorders.
The content categories also included leading links outside the app. Such links can lead to websites targeted at young children, change device settings or redirect to other websites.
Content should also mention potential contact with strangers. When it comes to the Internet, we can never be sure who is on the other side of the screen. This is particularly dangerous for young children or people who lack family or social role models, as it makes them overly trusting and vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.
Apps also affect the functioning and organization of the daily rhythm and habits associated with it – The demand to perform an appropriate action requires the child to adapt the rhythm of his or her day to the app based on the possibility of feeling loss by not performing a particular action and losing, e.g. points. This reinforces the habit of frequent use of the application, which is imposed by the creators and not regulated by the user himself, and attachment to the application. Long-term character or world building also has positive aspects, of course, but it should not be done on a forced basis. – we read in the report.
The threat is also combining information from different platforms. As the researchers point out, any combination of online identities can make it easier for people with bad intentions to get to know a potential victim better. A dangerous individual can learn about the psychological profile of their potential victim, allowing them to learn about their interests, daily routine, or general way of functioning in society, e.g. in a group of friends. Each piece of information provides a point of contact or can be a dangerous card in child endangerment activities.
Threatening also turns out to be itself marketing, as young audiences may not understand the mechanisms that drive their purchasing decisions. Young users may not distinguish between an advertising message and a regular message.
Do you care about your privacy?
Reporters understand privacy in two dimensionsThe research shows that 43 percent of the respondents use the information collected by the application for its proper functioning, as well as information it collects while in use or running in the background.
Apps can collect data from needed to user profiling, information such as names, ages, cell phone numbers, email addresses, work, school records or locations.
Understandably, they may also use information about app activityi. They can collect conversations, published posts, interactions with materials, friends and blocked users list, search history and uploaded media.
What is no longer so obvious, developer products can also collect TECHNICAL DATA, i.e. IP address, phone ID, User-Agent, login history, registration information.
Beyond device tech, digital products can also download information about settings. This data allows us to determine the basic preferences that a user has in relation to using multiple programs on a single device.
Research shows that 43 percent. the researched applications have access to deleted or archived items.
57 percent. of them has access to a list of sent invitations and received invitations to friends, groups and events.
71 percent. apps surveyed by the team have access to a person’s name, phone number, phone contacts, gender, published content, private messages, deleted messages, liked, commented, and saved content, friends list, purchase history, and data about them such as credit or debit card numbers and other data, account data, billing, contact, and shipping information, and search history.
86 percent. Investigated applications had access to your date of birth, time zone, block list, internet connection information, and what other applications you use.
All apps tested had access to age, email address, location, iP, ID, model and device name information.
The report shows that most applications are not suitable for use by young minds. – Many products do not sufficiently protect the user’s privacy on different levels – by encouraging the presentation of as much data as possible, forcing access to data collected by the device, as well as transferring data between services and transferring data in the background – we read in the report.
Interestingly, most of these applications do not exceed their permissions and adequately justify the need for data collection in their documentation, however, this creates a risk of data leakage or hostile takeover, and the age of users and its verification is limited to a single question. App producers do not feel the balance between making money on their users and privacy or well-being.
How to protect your child online?
As a parent it is worth asking yourself – What value the product will bring to my child? The answers to this question may be not obvious and not at all related to noble ideas, or maybe the “app” will contribute to meeting friends or learning a foreign language.
It is worth paying attention to how the application is presented and whether the information about it is complete and corresponds to reality. Then it should be checked if it is possible to turn off notifications and other information displayed on a blank screen.
For the safety aspects one should not forget to check if it is possible to contact a stranger. By uploading material to the network the user loses control over it, so it is worth checking who can access them and whether this can be changed in the settings.
It is worth noting that applications containing creative materials can always be a potential threat, because there is always a risk of inappropriate or harmful content.
When it comes to games, a parent should first and foremost pay attention to the age category at which the game is targeted. It is worth paying attention to whether there is a possibility of direct correspondence with strangers and what the culture of speech is like there.
It is worth checking if both the game and the chat have a lot of violence, aggression, vulgarity or eroticism, and if this is somehow verified by the service.
It seems necessary to check the game for access to device features and whether they are reasonable, e.g. Why does a puzzle app need access to the camera and microphone?
You need to check the game for links that redirect to other sites, ads that may negatively affect purchasing decisions or well-being, and how the app handles payments and whether it protects them in some way?
Dear parent, remember that
The most important thing is not to „get psychosis” or mania about danger. The world is constructed in such a way that we cannot escape from evil or suffering, and only conscious and skillful reactions can help us better react to all kinds of negative situations. As parents, we should look out for the welfare of our children by guiding and helping them, not by threatening or banning them. Hypersensitivity and possessiveness can be as harmful as indifference and ignorance. Any of the actions bearing the hallmarks of the preceding characteristics will have the opposite effect of harming our child. The report aims to raise awareness of the risks and show methods to control them and influence the way younger generations use devices.
The report focuses on the youngest, as they do not have the knowledge or tools to understand the risks that await them, but it is worth realizing that the risks for all users of mobile applications or systems and games will always be similar to the same extent for all.
It follows that you need to approach apps – like life, you need to take it easy, without stress and hurry, with a smile on your lips and your head on your shoulders!